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Dispensing Strategies: Lean times

Lean times

September 3, 2008
By Michelle Brisebois


The last few years have
been marked by a laser-like focus on health issues. From organic foods
to salt and trans fats – the food industry has been scrambling to offer
consumers healthier options.

The last few years have been marked by a laser-like focus on health issues. From organic foods to salt and trans fats – the food industry has been scrambling to offer consumers healthier options.

There’s a small wrinkle in this plan though and it comes dressed as an economic downturn. Sadly, the foods that tend to be bad for us also tend to be less expensive. They don’t call it the welfare diet for nothing.

It’s also true that when folks are stressed they often tend to soothe themselves with junk food.  Trans fats are also a more cost-effective ingredient for manufacturers, so this bad boy just may get a stay of execution.


Sometimes it feels like the fates are conspiring against our waistlines. Is it true? Do lean economic times make for not-so-lean Canadians?

According to Statistics Canada, a whopping 59 per cent of Canadians are currently overweight or obese. A report by Credit Suisse confirms that 1.8 billion people worldwide were obese or overweight in 2007.

Most sobering of all is the revelation that the number of obese and overweight people now exceeds the amount of those who are underfed. The blame for society’s expanding girth has been directed at a proliferation of calorie-laden fast foods, increasing portion sizes and inactivity.

Much pressure has been placed upon the food industry to come to the party – bearing a fruit platter instead of a bowl of potato chips. McDonald’s has replaced trans fats with a canola-based oil for all its deep-frying and its baked goods will cease being made with trans fats by the end of the year.

These statistics would suggest that all of us could look forward to bikini weather with glee. After all, acknowledging that we need to lose weight and getting the food industry to supply us with healthier options is half the battle – right? 

Our foodstuffs have become valuable bargaining chips in the ongoing worldwide energy game. As corn crops have been diverted for use as biofuels prices have skyrocketed and those trans fat alternatives are now financially out of reach for some food manufacturers.

ERM BioSource, of Vancouver, is watching their “Convert Campaign” struggle to maintain traction in light of ingredient costs. Ipsos-Reid reports that restaurants are starting to pull out of programs to switch to non-hydrogenated fryer oils as prices internationally for non-hydrogenated oils soar and fluctuate wildly.

There is also evidence that consumers are trading down a bit in terms of where they eat. While Starbucks and casual upscale restaurants seem to be feeling the pinch financially, McDonald’s (sales up 2.9 per cent), Burger King (same-store sales up 5.8 per cent) and Tim Hortons (same-store sales up 3.5 percent) are posting strong growth.

It’s easy to throw up our hands and interpret this evidence as proof that healthy eating’s days are numbered, but that would be short sighted.

In addition to eliminating trans fats from its menu – McDonald’s has continued to provide many healthy options for consumers, as do Burger King and Tim Hortons. Salads and whole-wheat buns reside quite nicely alongside those Big Macs, Whoppers and donuts on their menus.

Restaurants are also finding creative ways to keep food costs down.

In the May 2008 issue of the Ipsos-Reid Food Digest, it’s revealed that steakhouses in the U.S. are offering Buffalo meat as a cheaper alternative to steaks. Seafood houses are serving catfish and many establishments are offering smaller and less expensive portions.

While we may anticipate a consumer revolt for trimming serving sizes, it’s apparently proven to be quite the silver lining. Restaurants are reporting that customers are now spending as much or more than before the change because they’re ordering other items like dessert. Apparently the smaller entrée portions means there’s room left for other menu items.

We’re fortunate in North American society to have plenty of wiggle room in our portion sizes. As serving sizes have ballooned over the last 30 years, so have our waistlines. Those six-ounce cinnamon rolls can easily be cut in half while still being a satisfying indulgence. If we took most of our food items and cut them by half, we’d likely still be in excess of the recommended serving size.

As with many things in life, food trends these days are all about quality over quantity. The small indulgence remains a great way to weather tough economic times.

AC Neilson is calling candy “recession proof” as the category continues grow (three per cent over last year). Neilson reports that consumers are cutting back on driving great distances to save gas while shopping.

The report notes that consumers are spending more at drug and convenience stores featuring large, easy-access candy sections. That one-dollar candy is more affordable than the 15-dollar meal at the drive-through.

Healthy eating or low cost fried foods? Do we really expect consumers to fall squarely into one category or another?

Look for consumers to trade up and down throughout the day. The same person may have a scrambled egg and whole-wheat toast for breakfast and deep fried chicken and chocolate cake for lunch. Give them options, control costs through portion sizes and maybe our wallets and our waistlines will weather the financial squeeze together just fine.

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